Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Peasants Are Getting Sonnets: An Interview With Pop Novelist King Karl Wenclas

If I recall correctly, I met King Karl Wenclas when I was doing research on zines for my dissertation back in 2000 or so.  He was just starting the Underground Literary Alliance (ULA) with some fellow zinesters, and they were going to invade American literature and make it less boring through some protests and other literary activism.  That they did, and I got caught up in the fun, joining the organization myself for a few years.  I appreciated Wenclas's literary criticism and his zines, particularly War Hysteria, which he bravely released at the height of war on terror fever in 2001/02.  Since the ULA has run its course, Wenclas has been concentrating more on his own writing than on literary activism, but he and Anis Shivani probably still duke it out for the title of the most caustic critic in literature today (sorry, Michiko Kakutani, you're a pussycat compared to these two tigers).  He just released The Tower, a novel about a group of activists protesting a new sports stadium in an American city, and that's how our conversation starts.

1) Why did you put out The Tower as an ebook and not as a zine?

For two reasons. One is that it's easier to produce an ebook, once you figure it out. Second is that right now I'm flat broke and couldn't afford the copying and mailing costs. But I think The Tower would be great as a zine. A person can actually do more with zines-- like selling them at readings. Kinda hard to do with ebooks. That said, ebooks look to be the future of reading. I'd like to get at the forefront of what promises to be a sea change in how literature is produced, distributed, and read.

2) How do you think ebooks are affecting American literature?  Are things better than last decade when the Underground Literary Alliance was protesting the dismal state of it?

A good question. My impression is that the literary elite is more insular and hostile to change than ever before. They fear what ebooks are going to do to them. In public comments from the likes of Ann Patchett and Leon Wieseltier about Amazon and ebooks one receives nothing but emanations of fear. Ten years ago they were so complacent about their standing and their art that they could afford to let the ULA make a little noise. This couldn't happen now.

Unlike ten years ago, real change is coming that will sweep aside their world. I saw change in the city of Detroit, of a different kind, throughout my life. Wrenching change.  I saw the same complacency and the same underlying economic forces that were impossible to stop. The same kind of change is happening to publishing because of ebooks. There's just no way for a top-heavy publishing system with enormous built-in overhead costs to compete, in the long run, against 99-cent ebooks produced by low-rent characters like you or me. The Big Six are producing cheap ebooks also, of course, but that's not where they make their money. They're still dependent on the $25 print novel to pay the bills. It's what the Apple-Amazon lawsuit is about. The big guys were trying to stop natural forces that can't be stopped.

What underground writers have going for them is that we're not locked into a rigid model. We have flexibilty with our art. I believe that the novel can be both literary and pop. It can be readable and fun but also art. No one knows what kinds of writers will survive the coming sea change. What won't survive is the standard finely-detailed, slow-moving "literary" novel, which has been artificially propped up by the mass print media and the official arts organizations for decades. That kind of introspective writing isn't what people want. The public wants characters who dominate a stage; who are larger-than-life. They want superheroes. So I'm trying to make my characters, or at least one of them in my latest ebook, properly "large." Classic storytelling art. Homer after all gave his listeners larger-than-life characters.

If we can't create or lead the changes, we can at least surf them.

3) Speaking of the Underground Literary Alliance, what do you think the group's legacy is?  Literate-driven precursors of the Occupy and Tea Party movements, or a brief flare-up of the underground into the mainstream that will chiefly be remembered as communists and terrorists as their enemies described them (the Tom Bissell Believer essay was recently republished in his essay collection)?

One of the questions I ask in The Tower is: Who gets to write the history? Who constructs the narrative? Those outside the systems of authority and power are unable to, unless they construct their own histories, their own organs of voice and message; their own platform. That's what the ULA was attempting to do.

Those in the halls of established literature constructed a distorted narrative about the ULA, pushed it home and made theirs the accepted narrative about us. As you point out, "literary terrorists." If it's printed by authority, it becomes the truth. It's why our window of opportunity was so brief-- we had to establish a platform before the walls went up against us. We moved too slowly. We thought we had forever to get our books out there, or to build some kind of substantive foundation, even a nonprofit organization, which in hindsight we should've done. We lacked urgency, even I did, though the urgency I sometimes expressed was taken as too demanding by some.  The odds against us were impossible from the start. For myself, I was too easily sidetracked by the ULA's opponents, when I should've stayed narrowly focused. But that's hard to do. One has to restrain natural temper and have no ego. Life is a process of knocking away ego, stripping aside vanity and illusion.

I believe our legacy is more than we can see at the moment. We had a great history. That can't be taken away from us. The ULA is like Crazy Horse. Exterminated in cold-blooded fashion. Yet Crazy Horse lives on. You can't exterminate an idea. You can't exterminate authenticity, which the ULA had by the truckload and which new generations are always looking for.

The irony is that now literary elitists like the folks at n+1 and even those who most scorned us are supporting the very kinds of actions that the Underground Literary Alliance engaged in ten years ago. Yes, we were ahead of the curve. Definitely precursors. The contradiction doesn't register with them, except maybe at the back of their heads. They push the notion to the rear, but it's still there. I find curious the idea that years after we were relevant, many literary people remain fascinated by us and what we did. We're the Other. The ultimate literary rebels. I notice that even Bissell, in a recent interview with Ed Champion, discusses the ULA. (I haven't listened to the interview, but was told about it.) I'm sure he gives the false narrative, again, but the notion of the literary Outsider continues to trouble him.

It's a psychological truth that the more you repress an idea, the stronger it becomes.

4) What ideas are you interested in now?  What are your current projects?

My current project is American Pop Lit. Like a million other writers, I'm producing ebooks. I hope to distinguish mine from the mass. Instead of making easy genre lit, I'm attempting a fusion of styles, so the reading is fast and fun but also meaningful and relevant.

Having ideas about a style or genre of writing, to support and justify that style, is necessary in today's crowded literary scene. Supporting ideas add value to the writing. I still believe that the indy and populist ideas we inherited from the zine scene are winning ideas. But ideas are useless without ways to bring those ideas to the mainstream. How do we announce our writing to the larger society? I ponder this question often.

5) Anything else that you want to tell the world at the moment?

I would simply ask the world to support indy literature by purchasing independent ebooks. Thanks.

Check out more King Karl Wenclas at his blog!

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